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‘From the Earth to the Moon’ Is an Epic Miniseries of the Past, and What’s Needed in the Future

In honor of Apollo 11's 50th anniversary, HBO's magnificent 1998 miniseries is being re-released — but if made today, this event just wouldn't be the same.

Tony Goldwyn, Cary Elwes, Bryan Cranston in "From the Earth to the Moon"

Tony Goldwyn, Cary Elwes, Bryan Cranston in “From the Earth to the Moon”

Erik Heinila/Clavius Base/Go Flight Inc/Imagine Ent/Kobal/Shutterstock

When “From the Earth to the Moon” premiered in April 1998, it was a big deal for HBO. Still two months away from debuting “Sex and the City” and eight months out from “The Sopranos,” what was then still known as the Home Box Office network was making a big prestige play, with a miniseries about NASA’s Apollo missions, in a genre dominated by broadcast. After all, broadcast networks reached more people, and only cable providers willing to pay a little extra could check out HBO’s biggest event to date.

Of course, that made it a pretty big deal for TV itself, as the shows dominating cultural conversations and the awards circuit started to shift away from the Big Four networks and into the cable space. There was no way of knowing this 21 years ago, but “From the Earth to the Moon” was an event nonetheless — costing $65 million, shooting on more than 100 locations, and taking up two sound stages for an entire year at MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla. Led by Tom Hanks (who executive produced and hosted every episode, writing three more and directing one) and producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick, NASA even allowed the production to shoot in the Kennedy Space Center.

Now, the miniseries is making its way back to HBO, with all 12 episodes digitally remastered and brand-new CG effects added, based on models provided by NASA. The July 15 release on HBO NOW, as well as July 20’s marathon airing on HBO2, are timed to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historical moon landing, but its re-promotion may as well be timed to another shift in the TV landscape. With Disney+, Apple+, and HBO Max looming, and Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu already making their mark, television is moving again — beyond broadcast, beyond cable, and into the streaming space.

“From the Earth to the Moon” provides a perfect example of how things have changed over the past two decades. Elements of the 12-hour event series show how the production and rollout of premium television has been forever altered, and remind those who’ve lived through the changes of what’s been lost. But it’s also a pressing reminder of why stories like this helped shape the golden age of television and build HBO into an entertainment juggernaut. After revisiting the magnificent story, here’s how HBO’s first mega miniseries would change if it were remade today, and what those changes mean for TV’s future.

It would’ve been shorter.

Unless you’re an indie director hellbent on making a 13-hour movie, limited series longer than eight hours are rare in modern television. If anything, the format is skewing shorter and shorter, with hits like the five-hour “Chernobyl” and seven-hour entries like “Big Little Lies” and “Sharp Objects” showing an appetite for quick bites of entertainment. Those take up less nights of airtime, but they’re easier to binge online, and the latter is becoming far more important than the former these days.

“From the Earth to the Moon,” however, treated each new release like a feature film — like “Roots,” “Lonesome Dove,” and plenty other miniseries before it, HBO released two hours at a time, giving audiences the feeling of settling in for a new movie each night. Since HBO was primarily in the business of bringing studio movies into the home, this made sense.

From the Earth to the Moon HBO Ted Levine

Ted Levine in “From the Earth to the Moon”

Anthony Neste/HBO

And yet each episode told a standalone story. Though they all tie together to shape a thorough narrative around the Apollo space program, the first episode focuses on the politics motivating America’s decision to go to the moon — and, as the title “Can We Do This?” implies, if John F. Kennedy’s declaration to reach the lunar surface by the end of the decade is even possible. Episode 2 introduces a few new characters, but more importantly, makes a dramatic pivot in point of view: Written by future “Justified” and “Sneaky Pete” creator Graham Yost, “Apollo One” tracks the investigation into an earthbound accident that cost three astronauts their lives. Joe Shea (Kevin Pollack) and Harrison “Stormy” Storms (James Rebhorn), play two managers for NASA and North American Aviation, respectively, who may be at fault, and they’re much more prominent figures than the astronauts themselves.

That’s… a pretty big gamble to make this early in a space series, but it’s absolutely vital to set expectations for what’s to come. With 12 hours to fill, “From the Earth to the Moon” switches perspectives often, brining in new cast members and various behind-the-scenes talent to tell the best story of that moment in history. There’s an episode dedicated to the lunar module engineers, another to the newscasters trying to hold America’s attention, and an hour directed by Sally Field that’s dedicated to the astronauts’ wives, almost all of whom end up divorced from their husbands after their grueling experience going to space.

If made today, some of these episodes would’ve been cut down and others cut entirely. It would be OK to lose Episode 7, “That’s All There Is,” given how the goofy pseudo-comedy of Alan Bean’s trip to the moon never really comes together, and Episode 10, “Galileo Was Right” feels more like a geology lecture than a piece of entertainment. Other entries drag a big or are more redundant in message and execution than anyone needs. (They gotta hit that 60-minute mark!)

But shortening the miniseries overall would mean sacrificing someone’s story, and if there’s one thing all Apollo movies have in common, it’s emphasizing how many people went into making each mission a success. “From the Earth to the Moon” sees that big picture and does an incredible job honoring the many scientists, engineers, and other citizens needed to get those astronauts to the moon and back again, safely. Sometimes, you just need time — hours and hours of time — to get that message across. TV has that time, and even in the era of Netflix bloat, some limited series need to maximize their opportunity.

Tom Hanks and his production team at the 1999 Golden Globe Awards

Tom Hanks and his production team at the 1999 Golden Globe Awards

Mark J Terrill/AP/Shutterstock

Tom Hanks would be the lead character, tying the whole series together.

To kick off 11 of the 12 episodes, Tom Hanks comes walking out from behind a giant stone carving, reciting a heartfelt introduction as, well, Tom Hanks — star of “Apollo 13” and beloved human being. But Hanks doesn’t appear in the series until the final episode, first donning heavy old age makeup and a French accent to play Jean-Luc Despont, the right-hand man to director Georges Méliès, who made the landmark 1902 motion picture, “A Trip to the Moon.” Yes, the final episode of “From the Earth to the Moon” is a faux-documentary bouncing between the early 1900s where Méliès is trying to make his movie, and the Apollo 17 mission, which remains the last manned mission to the moon, but there’s simply no way the miniseries would be made today with Hanks’ popping in during the last hour — not without a different movie star anchoring the other 11 episodes.

When “From the Earth to the Moon” was made, Hanks saw the miniseries format as a chance to properly tell the Apollo stories, sure, but also as a chance for the actor to craft his writing and directing skills. While these things still happen today — see Hulu’s “Catch-22,” where George Clooney pops in at the beginning and the end, but otherwise works behind-the-scenes as an executive producer and director — they don’t happen the same way. Movie stars can move into television without it being seen as slumming it, and limited series are often sold on the movie star’s rare venture into an extended narrative. Hulu definitely wasn’t shouting from the rooftops that Clooney only appears in a handful of scenes across “Catch-22,” while HBO was certainly pushing Amy Adams’ constant presence in “Sharp Objects” as well as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Streep in every episode of “Big Little Lies.” Where else can you see that talent come together, and where else can you see so much of it?

But in order to attract said talent, you need meatier roles, and here’s where the big switch would’ve come in — one that Mr. Hanks, in all his wisdom, may have opposed to point of backing out. Since “From the Earth to the Moon” is built on various perspectives, it needs a massive, ever-changing ensemble, rather than a central character guiding the whole story. That would probably change if made today. While plenty of limited series are still driven by TV stars or big casts of previously unknown actors, plenty more — especially of the “prestige” variety — are driven by big names. And if they’re going to cut down the episode count to a more 2019-friendly eight or six, than why not make sure there’s a spot for ol’ Tom in each hour?

The easiest way to accomplish this would be to give him the role of Deke Slayton, the director of flight crew operations at NASA and a character who showed up in 10 of the 12 episodes already. Played well by Nick Searcy, Hanks would even be better-suited for the role now, with more experience built into each line of his face. Still, Hanks doesn’t exactly scream for vanity projects (remember when he showed up on “30 Rock” as a presiding member of the “A-list actor list”?), so it seems like he’d use whatever power he had to push through more stories from more perspectives, no matter what the trend. Good on you, Tom. Good on you.

Viewers would’ve seen the dark side of the moon.

Call it a hunch, given how literally and figuratively dark prestige TV has gotten, but in an age when even Archie Comics gets a dark and gritty TV adaptation, I don’t imagine a version of “From the Earth to the Moon” that’s as consistently uplifting as the one we got in 1998. Heck, the last time we saw Neil Armstrong on screen, he spent the entire movie trying to recover from the death of his daughter. Was “First Man” the best movie of 2018? You bet! Was it a huge downer? That, too!

“From the Earth to the Moon” is so positive it often crosses over into schmaltz. A 2019 version could easily frame the Apollo missions as what’s missing from today’s America as opposed to what fulfilled the country at the time, prioritizing its call to action over its pride in the past and the people who inspired generations to come. That’s not to say current citizens should be satisfied with our government’s scientific pursuits, but the implicit nature of “From the Earth to the Moon” would likely be far more explicit if magnified for modern audiences.

But it wouldn’t have been an event.

What better time to be an old man shouting at the moon than when writing about the moon missions? Yes, “From the Earth to the Moon” represents the kind of appointment TV many feel has gone extinct. But it didn’t just feel like an event in the sense that it was released every week with great fanfare, before the age of anytime streaming; it was made to be an event in every moment.

From the standalone construction of the episodes, to the real-life locations recreated for the shoot; from the massive scale of the sets, to the immersive special effects; from the movie star introducing each episode to the historical figures honored within them, “From the Earth to the Moon” felt big, big, big. It knew it had to earn its audience’s attention every week, and treated the audience accordingly. There wasn’t a big twist at the end of each episode to keep you coming back. There wasn’t an option to plow through at your own pace, skip to the next story, or even watch each new entry whenever you felt like it. This miniseries was an event, both because of how it was released and how it was created.

As access becomes the top priority for groundbreaking series, it’s important to remember that HBO felt that same pressure in 1998: Unlike the broadcast networks, not everyone could watch — you had to pay to see premium programming, and the network knew it had to earn those dollars with quality, not quantity. The opposite seems to be true in the streaming era, and while we may never see something like “From the Earth to the Moon” again, it may also be exactly what these new services need to earn those coveted subscribers. Disney, Netflix, and Apple may not need a nightly event series, but they do need shows that merit the monthly charge. Sure, some streamers can fall back on their massive libraries to keep viewers on the hook, but the past will only take you so far. People are always looking for what’s next.

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